The university as an idea.

A Piece by General Intellect Wellington

It is a commonplace amongst critically minded academics that the university, or a certain version of the university, needs saving. It needs saving from its own internal markets and the markets imposed on it by research-based funding, from the creation of a competitive environment, a logic of point scoring that measures research quantity at the expense of quality and forces academics into unsustainable work regimes.

We know that the university needs saving, and what it needs saving from, but we are unclear what it is that we are saving. Critics of the academy might accuse its defenders of nostalgia for some mythical Oxbridge, one that guarantees its staff (and by no means all of its staff) the right to uninterrupted and unadministered research time.

Such time can be, from the outside, embarrassingly difficult to distinguish from leisure, and not only because the reader of a ‘hard’ book might look similar to the reader of an ‘easy’ one. We can’t distinguish academic work from leisure by its difficulty. Leisure itself, after all, can be as strenuous as any work, as evidenced by all the ambitious home renovators or amateur sportspeople grunting their way about the tennis court.

More importantly, the confusion between research and leisure arises because it is because it is not clear how research, especially research of a ‘pure’ variety, contributes anything more to society than anyone’s weekend activity. Reading books and being paid for it? Writing words that hardly anyone reads? Few goods are produced for others’ consumption and enjoyment; few bones set or bridges built (medical or engineering schools being, we might guess, not quite the university we are talking about). All of the standard defences of the other university, as critic and conscience of society, are correct, but tend to have a hollow and nostalgic ring to them. Who, outside the institution, ever asked for such a conscience?

This is the source of the jealous rage directed against academics, not least from their own administrations. This anger provides much fuel for the regimes of audit and bureaucratic demand currently being assembled.

All of the university’s models, and their rhetorical hesitations and failings, relate to this problematic Oxbridge image. Is the university primarily a teaching institution? Research would then certainly be relegated to (currently non-existent) spare time, funded from the surplus to be accumulated from income based solely on student enrolments. The shortcomings of this idea were felt in New Zealand throughout the nineties, through the genuine suffering of research, but also through the universities’ elitist terror at no longer being distinguishable from the polytechnics.

The answer to this—the acceptance of the universities’ special status as research institutions—also owes much to the Oxbridge image. The importance of research was acknowledged, and this set the universities apart once again. The concern that this apartness should not lead straight to elitism was appropriate: research work could only be different in kind, not in status. It would be one kind of work among many, and therefore subject to the same work pressures as all: the rationalisations and output drives associated with performance-based research funding. All this at least funds research, and comes still with far less strings than the most immediately likely (and already extant) alternative: the drive to find external funding from industry.

The question then, is whether research is work or leisure: which it most resembles, and in what ways. It is a charged question, leading to the most elaborate defences and heated attacks. Let us then be brave enough in the midst of this to defend the university as an idea.


The university as an idea is threatening because it resists the instrumental logic of measurement, equivalence and competition that controls so much of the world (in much the same way that corporate research labs in the Fordist era did, and many arts institutions and public services still, imperfectly, do). The assault on free research is consistent with the assault on any perceived inefficiencies, any apparently idle capital, and their increasing subjection to the discipline of markets, however artificial or internal these might be.

Resisting this will mean keeping in mind, against the jealous anger, that faded old image of research, free of measurement, assessment or competitive pressures. Research time should be precisely the time to freely and collaboratively enquire, critique and invent. In one sense this might mean that the university, narrowly considered as an institution, is primarily about teaching, provided it is also about time not teaching, the time off (and material infrastructure) sufficient for research’s leisure.

Do we become elitists by defending this? Certainly not by comparison to the genuine elites, our tiny and inbred international class of political and business ‘leaders’. Attacks on the elitism of academics serve partly to deflect attention from this class. Nonetheless, a defence of academic freedom would be elitist insofar as it would be a freedom limited to academics, and no defence of their right to research time based on training or expertise would make it less so. We should allow ourselves to be infected with a hint of the jealous rage after all, and hate this small elitism along with the larger one.

This is why our claim should be: we insist on the right to freely and collaboratively enquire, critique and invent… and we insist on this right, not just for academics, but for all.

This is not to say we insist on it all at once, or expect it any time soon. The university as an idea is also a vision of society that shares and extends the university’s (remaining) freedoms, and such a society is by no means imminent. It does mean, however, that if academics are to defend their rights they, and their institutions, should be prepared also to promote similar rights wherever they exist or might emerge.

We should then avoid the melancholy that values the university only as a last bastion of critique and freedom against the encroachment of administration and commerce. A genuinely non-elitist idea of the university would reverse the historical sequence, seeing itself instead as an outpost, the first small step of a far broader tendency. The university as an idea would be universal. It would extend beyond the walls of the campus. Academics within the institution, who can despite everything claim something of that right, can only defend it with any justice by championing it for all. This means letting go of our monopoly
on good ideas, and on critique, and allowing that others outside the academy may have different and equally valid critiques of their own.

The question now for the academy—for academics and for universities themselves—is: can we be brave enough to embrace such a utopian idea? It is an idea that, in the short term, can of course seem so impractical as to lead only to strategic deadlock. Against this defeatism, we should let it inform all of our dealings, rhetorical, to be sure, at first, with the university and its relation with the rest of the world.

General Intellect Wellington

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